Bay Area artist Enrique Chagoya imagines a New World never conquered by Europeans
In art, there’s a long tradition of Europeans and Americans borrowing images from other cultures. In two well-known examples, Paul Gauguin sold paintings in Paris in the 1890s of women and religious symbols from Tahiti, and, early in the 20th century, many of the faces on Picasso’s paintings borrowed their look directly from African masks.
Those artists adopted imagery from cultures considered more “primitive” than their own, and the same thing has been done by countless others. Frank Lloyd Wright, for one, borrowed from the Mayans.
Enrique Chagoya—a San Francisco artist who grew up in Mexico and is a professor at Stanford University—has based a long, successful career on turning the tables on that arrangement.
Here’s the idea in his own words. In 2016, he told an interviewer for online arts magazine Hyperallergic, “I thought, ’What would happen if ’primitive’ artists appropriated European art in the opposite direction, and perhaps with the same reverence?”
In his exhibition Reimagining the New World on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, Chagoya imagines just that.
It’s easy to picture what kinds of scenarios an artist might come up with after posing that question: maybe serene, utopian communities, unmolested by disease, violence or social upheaval. And it’s easy to picture a string of smug one-liners making the simple pronouncement, “colonialism is wrong.”
But Chagoya does not deal in one-liners or nice, neat utopias.
“What I’m trying to do is put a mirror on humankind, on ourselves,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m not pointing fingers. I think we are all responsible for whatever is wrong in the world, and also whatever is right in the world, so it’s not a black or white. We are a very complex species.”
To explore this, he presents multitudes of symbols and pictures, mismatched as if he’d landed in the U.S. from outer space one day and, with no contextual clues to go on, he’d sifted through every form of 2-D expression our large, pluralistic culture produces—from dollar bills to comic-book heroes, from high art to Mickey Mouse—and tried to sort them and make sense of them.
The resulting paintings and prints have a deeply rich, frantic energy. Some pieces take the form of unfolded informational pamphlets, each several feet long, with titles like “An Illegal Alien’s Survival Guide,” crammed with intentionally misunderstood mixed metaphors.
The entire presentation, which only takes up one modest-sized gallery room, offers so much detail it’s hard to chew on in one—or even two—visits. Here are just a couple of snapshots of the hundreds of groupings of images in this show: In one print, a disembodied head rises from toxic waste sludge. Its face has an opulent number of features—including at least nine noses, some of them dripping. Some of the features are easily recognizable—Bart Simpson’s eyeball, Goofy’s snout, an Illuminati eyeball from the back of a $1 bill. Beneath the head, a giant hypodermic syringe threatens a stunned-looking Waldo, and a yellow road sign signifies a crossing area for pedestrians—who are armed with rifles. In another print, girls with ’60s-era bouffant bob cuts and lanky, Barbie-like height-to-weight proportions wear A-line dresses with the primary colors, white squares and black borders of a Mondrian painting. A figure with a cautious expression looks over at the girls from inside a small frame. He could just as easily be a Renaissance painting come to life or a migrant leaning out of a train window.
Each of those two examples, packed to the breaking point with referents and contradictions, is just a small part of one Chagoya piece.
And it gets even more complex from there. While working to process and catalog all of these cultural signifiers, Chagoya seems to always keep in mind that visual artwork is an inherently messy, imperfect, chronically unfinished business. Any given symbol might mean one thing in one culture and another thing in the next. Any given image might mean one thing inside the academic art world and another thing outside of it. He critiques the entirety of this can of worms, sometimes by placing flying insects or comic book characters here and there to act as skeptical art theorists. They utter fragments in speech bubbles. A one-inch-high Batman points out, “So highly personal as to exclude the viewer.”
“It’s a matter of how much you recognize and how much you could read,” Chagoya said.
His recurring Popeye and Olive Oyl characters, for example, might land on some viewers as ever-present images from childhood, on others as strange characters from a distant past, and, on others, not at all.
In the first piece that’s visible at the entrance to the exhibition, a lithograph called “Aliens Sans Frontièrs,” a grid of Chagoyas stand in for people of six different cultures, including a blond European royal and an African mother carrying a toddler. He called the piece “a self portrait of the stereotypes from different ethnic groups.”
“For me, stereotypes are a dehumanizing element in almost every culture,” he said. “It’s usually something done to dehumanize people outside of a tribe, of a nation, a group of people. What I would say is, where humankind, in spite of our differences in religion, languages, cultures, nationalities, social classes, gender, gender preferences, identity, you name it, a lot of differences—but in spite of all those differences, we’re all the same genome.”
Chagoya had his DNA tested recently and found that he has ancestry from just about everywhere: Native American, East Asian, Mideastern. “I have some Jewish background and even a tiny bit of northern European, and my oldest ancestor is from northern Africa, like 250,000 years ago,” he said.
“We are all the same species,” he added. “And in that, we are all humans, just as valuable as each other.”
He’s not trying to be didactic about it, though—or conclusive.
“I’m not trying to convince anybody with my work,” he said. “I’m basically just expressing my own personal anxieties—hopefully with some sense of humor. But it’s not about convincing anybody of my ideas. I don’t hold the monopoly of truth, and I just express as honestly as I can what I feel and, hopefully, in the best cases, we get some kind of dialogue.”